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Great Squads From History – Bayer Leverkusen 2001-2002

The 2001-02 great Bayer Leverkusen side is infamous for their incredible choke job in the last stretch of the season, losing out on three major trophies in quick succession which gives them the incredible distinction of overachieving and underachieving at the same time.

For Leverkusen the 2001-02 season was supposed to be the culmination of the past 5 years of hard work, in the previous 5 seasons, Leverkusen were a consistent challenger for the Bundesliga title, coming 2nd thrice and finishing only as low as 4th place. This consistency did not come without turmoil, Christoph Daum, team manager from 1996 until 2000 laid the foundation for this squad before the infamous Daum-Affair where in 1999 it was agreed that he was to go on and become the next German national team manager after the EURO 2000 but allegations of his love for cocaine and orgy parties from the media derailed the appointment. He was furious and submitted hair samples to the relevant authorities for testing, tests came back positive and he incredibly said the hair wasn’t his. Ultimately he admitted his use of cocaine and his agreement with the German FA was canceled and he was fired by Bayer Leverkusen shortly after.

Amidst this turmoil, Bayer Leverkusen struggled a little in the 2000-01 season finishing 4th, their worst league finish of the previous 5 years but still good enough to qualify for a spot in the early rounds for next season UEFA champions league, in the summer of 2001 they’d sign their next coach, This is where we begin.

  • The Manager

Klaus Toppmöller

Toppmöller had a decent career as a footballer, an 8 year stint as the main attacking option for FC Kaiserslautern which would earn him a move to the NASL team Dallas Tornado where he’d kinda fail and come back to Germany to play for minnows FSV Salmrohr before retiring and immediately becoming first team coach. He bounced around from club to club, never spending more than 2 seasons anywhere, he came to be known for his quick fix jobs and was never handed or wanted a long term project. Think of him as a less successful and a more eccentric Claudio Ranieri.

  • The Players

Goalkeepers

(#1) Hans-Jörg Butt : this would be his 1st season with Leverkusen having joined on a free transfer from Hamburg after a successful 4 year stint there. He become Leverkusen’s undisputed starting goalkeeper for the next 6 years before losing his starting spot to the up and coming youngster René Adler. He immediately moved to Benfica where he’d have a one year unsuccessful stint before returning to Germany and signing with Bayern Munich where he competed for a starting spot with supposed wonderkid Michael Rensing. He eventually cemented himself as the starting goalkeeper before losing the spot to Thomas Kraft. This game of musical chairs at Munich was ultimately stopped once Manuel Neuer was signed , as is always the case with German goalkeepers of this era, he’s highly eccentric, known for his affinity to score penalties and most infamously he was the recipient of one of the most hilarious goals of all time

(#20) Frank Juric in his first couple of seasons in Germany, the Australian giant played for Fortuna Düsseldorf having a relatively successful time in the 2nd division with them before they were ultimatley relagated to the regional leagues, however he was spotted by Leverkusen and signed for them as a backup, he would spend the rest of his career as a backup goalkeepr, nothing memorable.

(#31) Tom Starke originally a handball goalkeeper, Mr. Starke would switch sports in his teenage years, would spend years as a backup in Leverkusen before having decent spells as a starter for Paderborn, Duisburg & Hoffenheim. He then joined Bayern Munich to spend the twilight of his career as a backup goalkeeper

Defenders

(#5) Jens Nowotny

after becoming a starter at the age of 19 for Karlsruher, he would spend the next 5 years honing his defensive skills with his boyhood club before joining Bayer Leverkusen in 1996 and spending the next decade with the club, becoming a mainstay in the starting lineup providing consistent performance as a dependable top Bundesliga level defender, he’s considered a club legend by Leverkusen fans, due to tough competition, he didn’t have much success at the international level

(#6) Boris Živković

after joining the club in 1997, the Croatian would spend the next 6 years as a perennial starter for the team, generally dependable but prone to making costly mistakes, after his contract expired with Leverkusen, he’d sign for Portsmouth to achieve his dream of playing in England, he’d infamously cancel his contract with the English side after 6 months due to a huge spat with manager Harry Redknapp

(#19) Lúcio

a bona-fide legend and one of the best defenders in the world during his peak, the Brazilian rose to prominence with Internacional, being named as one of the two best defenders in the Brazilian league in 2000, he’d join Bayer Leverkusen in the middle of the season as a January 2001 signing to bolster the squad, he’d immediately become and remain a starter for the next 3 & half years, a quick, strong and clever center back, tough to dribble in a one on one situation. he’s also known for his incredible runs forward surprising opposition teams with his dribbling skills and close ball control. he’s also got a great shot and would punish any team that leave him unmarked ; after his stint with Bayer Leverkusen, He’d join league rivals Bayern Munich in 2004 winning 3 domestic doubles in 5 years, afterwards he’d join Inter Milan and become part of the treble-winning squad in 2010. He’s a world cup 2002 winner with Brazil

(#26) Zoltán Sebescen

The Hungarian-German started his career with minnows Stuttgarter Kickers before being discovered by Wolfsburg in 1999 and becoming one of the better right-backs/right midfielders in the league, earning a move to title contenders Bayer Leverkusen in 2001, during his peak with Wolfsburg and early years with Leverkusen he was a major candidate for a spot with the German national team and he would play once horrendously in a friendly against the Netherlands where Zenden completely toyed with him, the constant injuries caused by Lyme disease would derail his career and eventually he would retire at the early age of 29

(#35) Diego Placente

An Argentinos Juniors youth product, after playing professionally for two years with his boyhood club, he would move to giants River Plate in 1997, becoming a starting left back there for a 3 time league-winning squad. He’d join Bayer Leverkusen in 2001 to become their starting left back for the next 4 years. a dependable defender with decent attacking capabilities, due to shortage of capable left backs in Argentina, he’d be called regularly for the national team to play in qualifiers

Midfielders

(#8) Zé Roberto

The mercurial Brazilian started his professional career at local club Portuguesa quickly impressing giants Real Madrid to sign him in January 1997, he’d spend a full year in Madrid as mostly a back up, earning a La Liga and a cheeky champions league winners medals before returning to Flamengo as he wanted more playing time to be considered for the Brazilian National Team, his bid was unsuccessful and he quickly returned to Europe with Bayer Leverkusen in the summer of 1998, he’d quickly establish himself as one of the best versatile midfielders in the league and perhaps the world. quick, agile and gifted with the ball at his feet, add to that his mythical athleticism and his ability to play virtually in any position and any formation whether defense oriented or attack focused made him a highly sought after commodity with Bayern Munich winning his services in the summer of 2002, he’d win four domestic doubles with Munich becoming a club & Bundesliga legend. his incredible athleticism would allow him to continue playing around the world well into his 40s, retiring in 2017

(#10) Yıldıray Baştürk

born in Germany but chose to represent his ancestral homeland Turkey, this diminutive play-maker started his professional career with Wattenscheid before moving to local rivals Bochum, he’d establish himself as a talented play-maker with a great eye for goals and assists, he’d stay with Bochum for 4 years before signing with Bayer Leverkusen in 2001. he’d become the team’s main play-maker and an integral part of the midfield. he’d later join Hertha Berlin & Stuttgart with varying degree of success.

(#13) Michael Ballack

Embed from Getty Images

The squad’s undisputed superstar and one of the best midfielders in the world during his peak, started his career at local East German club FC Karl-Marx-Stadt (later renamed Chemnitzer FC after the fall of the Berlin wall) he’d become a starter for the team after they got relegated to Regionalliga Nordost, he quickly begun attracting the attention of Bundesliga clubs with FC Kaiserslautern winning his services, during his first season there as a rotation option he’d achieve a legendary feat with the club as they became the first ever club to win the Bundesliga title immediately after promotion, he’d move to Bayer Leverkusen in the summer of 1999 and become one of the best goal scoring midfielders in the world with his superstar status cemented, he also became known as one of the unluckiest footballers in the world achieving an incredible feat of coming 2nd in 4 major trophies in a little less than 3 months span. in what is now a familiar trend; after the heartbreaks in 2002 he’d defect to Bayern Munich and win 3 domestic doubles with them, in 2006 he’d earn a major move to Chelsea where he’d win a premier league title in his last season there in 2010. he’d finish his career with Bayer Leverkusen, during his incredible career he’d unfortunetly be accused of being a serial choker in important moments, an accusation levied against him even by his own clubs at times.

(#25) Bernd Schneider

Nicknamed the white Brazilian (which I always found odd, I mean Zico was white?) due to the elegance of his play and technical abilities. a fantastic free kick taker and one of the most gifted assist makers during his peak. he’d start his career with 2nd division local club Carl Zeiss Jena earning a reputation as a major talent, he finally moved to Eintracht Frankfurt in 1998 playing one season there before moving to Bayer Leverkusen the club he is most associated with. his career flourished with Leverkusen and he’d quickly be called up to the German National team squad, he’d spend the next decade with Leverkusen becoming arguably the club’s greatest ever player alongside teammates Ulf Kirsten & Carsten Ramelow.

(#28) Carsten Ramelow

A tough, physical defensive minded midfielder, started his professional career with Hertha Berlin in 1991, he moved to Bayer Leverkusen in 1995 where he would stay until his retirement in 2008, highly revered by Leverkusen fans due to his grit and never-say-die attitude, one of the longest serving players in club history, his physical play earned him the scorn of opponents, most famously Italian legend Francesco Totti who famously double stomped Ramelow during a champions league fixture in 2004

Forwards

(#9) Ulf Kirsten

The club’s best ever goalscorer and 2nd in all-time appearances. the East German would start his career in 1983 with Dynamo Dresden, he’d win a couple of Oberliga titles with them as well as working as an informant for the state police with the nickname “Knut Krüger”. with the fall of the Berlin wall, he’d move in 1990 to Bayer Leverkusen embarking on a 13 year stint with the club as dependable consistent goalscorer throughout his years with them, he was part of the 1993 DFB-Pokal winning squad, the club’s only local trophy in its history

(#12) Dimitar Berbatov

One of the greatest Bulgarian footballers of all time, started his career with local giants CSKA Sofia quickly establishing himself as a wonderkid with Bayer Leverkusen acquiring his services in 2001, he’d start as an effective backup and rotation option before becoming the team’s main superstar after the club was raided. elegant, calm and highly proficient technically with impressive goalscoring abilities he’d become a fan favorite at every club he played at, he moved to Tottenham in 2006 before most famously playing for Man United where he’d win a couple of premier league titles, as well as a premier league golden boot in 2011

(#27) Oliver Neuville

Born in Switzerland to a German Father & an Italian mother, he’d start his career with Swiss side Servette FC helping them win a league title with 16 goals in his second year with them, in 1996 he’d chose to move to Spain to play with CD Tenerife playing one decent season there before finally moving to the Fatherland signing with Hansa Rostock where he played in for a couple of successful seasons before moving to Bayer Leverkusen, he’d play for 5 seasons with the perennial contenders becoming an essential offensive piece to the team, while not always the most proficient of goalscorers, his intelligence and off-the-ball play was highly important for the team’s success, he’s also known for scoring in important occasions

Other players that appeared during the season:

(#3) Marko Babić , (#15) Jurica Vranješ (#17)Pascal Ojigwe (#18) Frankie Hejduk (#23) Thomas Brdarić (#24) Emanuel Pogatetz (#29) Thorsten Wittek

Memorable moments & matches during the season in no particular order

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